U.S. Public Libraries and the Use of Web Technologies, 2010

It’s well known that technology is changing at an increasingly rapid pace and that many public libraries throughout the United States are attempting to adopt new technologies to better reach their patrons. In trade journals, blogs, and at library conferences, professionals in the field have continually discussed the best methods for using web technologies to enhance the success of the public library. In keeping with this discussion, in late 2007 the Library Research Service (LRS) designed the first iteration of the U.S. Public Libraries and the Use of Web Technologies study. In the midst of a conversation largely focused on best practices, this study was envisioned from its inception as a longitudinal study with several goals. Primarily, it attempts to record the landscape of web technology adoption by public libraries in the United States. While most of the discourse thus far has focused on what should and should not be done to better use technologies, there has not yet been much research examining how and how many libraries actually are adopting various web technologies. This study attempts to put that in perspective. Another intention of this study is to examine the characteristics of the libraries that are adopting technology in an attempt to tease out the factors that lead them to try out various tools. We are also interested in determining whether or not the adoption of specific types of technology leads to “success” as traditionally defined in public libraries. This report represents the second iteration, and refinement, of the study. It captures a changing landscape of web technology adoption by public libraries and looks further into the characteristics and successes of libraries that adopt technology.

The first iteration of this study found relatively low adoption levels of more interactive web technologies, despite the popularity of “Web 2.0″ themes in the national literature and conference dialog. Depending on the type of technology, the increase in adoption rate for public libraries ranged from very little, if any, to incredible leaps and bounds. The area that was most embraced during the two years between studies was social networking, especially among the largest libraries. Most notably, the social networking site Facebook moved from a relative non-factor to near ubiquity in large libraries: for libraries serving communities of at least 500,000 people, the ratio of those with a Facebook presence jumped from barely one in ten in 2008 (11%) to 4 out of 5 (80%) in 2010. Similar, though less drastic increases were found in libraries serving other population groups, and the estimated percentage of all public libraries in the United States to have a Facebook presence rose nine-fold, from only 2 percent in 2008 to 18 percent in 2010. Libraries’ use of other social networking sites, such as the photo-sharing site Flickr, saw large increases also well. During this study, researchers also looked for the presence of a web site directed at mobile users. Very few public libraries were targeting mobile users online at the time of the study, but outreach to mobile technologies seems like an area potentially poised for an explosion similar to that of use of social networking sites. Whereas a few years ago social media was a topic of heavy discussion at conferences and in library literature, the current topic du jour tends to be mobile devices. Most notable is a series of virtual conferences, such as Handheld Librarian, dedicated specifically to mobile devices.

More traditional public library web technologies, such as web presence and online account access, seem to have plateaued. Nearly all libraries that serve over 25,000 people already had some of these basic services by 2008, so there was not much room for growth. Based on our research, the smallest libraries did not see much increase in basic online services, either. In fact, a lower percentage of libraries serving fewer than 10,000 people had a web presence at all during this iteration of the survey, as compared with 2008 (73% vs. 71%). Some of the standard but slightly more interactive web technologies, such as email reference and blogs, tell a similar story to that of basic web services in that they showed little, if any, growth among most population groups. One of the few exceptions was in social media, which saw exponential increases across the board; other than that, it was primarily the largest libraries (those serving more than 500,000) that demonstrated substantial increases in their adoption rates. In fact, greater technology adoption among the largest libraries in the country was a general theme in comparing the overall public library web technology landscape between 2008 and 2010. Instead of a flattening of the percentages of libraries adopting certain technologies across the board, it seems that the gap between big and small libraries is growing in terms of the technology offered on their websites.

Just as in the first version of the study, libraries that were in the top twenty percent of their population group based on the number of technologies adopted were labeled “Early Adopters.” The most recent public library statistical data available (2008) from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), indicates that libraries we identified as Early Adopters again fared much better on traditional statistical measures than their peers, both in terms of inputs and outputs. Early Adopters were better funded and better staffed than other libraries and also saw greater outputs in visits, circulation, and programming. The major inference from this analysis is that public libraries that have been successful in the past, when measured by traditional means, have also chosen to put resources into the adoption of new web technologies.

Revisiting the observational data from the first iteration of the study, researchers found that libraries identified as Early Adopters in 2008 saw significantly greater increases in visits and circulation between 2003 and 2008 than their peers who had not been as active in the adoption of these technologies. Regression analysis suggests that, even when controlling for staff and collection expenditures, adoption of web technologies is a predictor of these increases.

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LRS is part of the Colorado State Library, a unit of the Colorado Department of Education. We design and conduct library research for library and education professionals, public officials, and the media to inform practices and assessment needs. We partner with the Library and Information Science program at University of Denver's Morgridge College of Education to provide research fellowships to current MLIS students.

This project is made possible by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

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